IATSE Chief Matthew Loeb Talks Strike Threat, AI and Union Priorities as AMPTP Negotiations Loom: ‘It’s a Serious Mistake to Play a Game of Chicken’

Matthew Loeb is heading into what is likely to be the most consequential negotiation of his 16-year tenure to date as international president of IATSE.

The union’s contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are set to begin March 4. After last year’s protracted strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the industry is on edge about the possibility of another work stoppage. This time around, IATSE is bolstering its bargaining muscle by negotiating key aspects of the contract jointly with the Hollywood Basic Crafts union as well as Hollywood Teamsters.

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In a wide-ranging Q&A, Loeb details the key issues at stake — AI, streaming residuals and pay hikes — and why he’s already declared that IATSE is not willing to extend its current contract after the July 31 expiration date.

Artificial intelligence blew up into a huge issue for the WGA and SAG-AFTRA during their contract talks last year. How do you see it affecting your negotiations? Is AI a threat to your members?

I wouldn’t use the word threat. They see it as a challenge. And I think that we are assessing the effect of AI on our craft. Having said that, we’re going to be proposing protections for jobs and standards and hoping that AI in the future actually helps us. Sometimes new jobs are created with new technology. Beyond that, my hope is that some of the efficiencies and or advantages of AI will filter down to the crews — meaning that it will take some pressure off of the demands that are put people day to day.

Do you see it as a situation where AI is basically a tool and you just have to use it appropriately?

It’s going be a tool, but it has to be negotiated and viewed in my mind from a human-based approach. The crafts and the artistic trades that we represent should be in control of the things that have to date been produced as a result of their jobs.

The big theme for SAG-AFTRA was to achieve consent and compensation with AI. For them it was ‘OK, we recognize we’re not going to stop it. It’s coming. It’s here. But we want to know when it’s used and we want to be paid.’ Is that similar to the ask that you’re making?

Well, our issues are a little bit different. Obviously the images of the actors and those kinds of issues are different for us. For us, it’s really about erosion or potential erosion of our craft, through the technology. We don’t get extra pay for licensing or images, copyright and that sort of thing, although we do get residuals…..We represent scores of crafts, and AI challenges vary somewhat from craft to craft obviously, from a painter or a carpenter to a sound mixer to an editor. The nuances are different but having said that, we’re looking for umbrella protection that covers everyone with a uniform negotiated protection.

Your contract expires July 31. You’ve already said that you won’t be extending it. Should we read that as IATSE taking a tougher position than in the past from the start in these negotiations?

There are a lot of reasons that we’ve taken that position. The amount of time that is set gets used, no matter how long it is, and so we want to put a stake in the ground on the final date. We have to ratify the [new] agreement before [the past contract] expires. And you can take that message any number of ways, including, if we don’t have a deal, we’ll be sending out a strike vote.

So it’s not a foregone conclusion that there will be a strike authorization vote – that’s what you’re saying?

I am saying that. My hope is that is that we have an agreement that is fair and good enough for the members that they’ll ratify it. The final word is whether they accept the best deal we think we can get them.

Compared to 2021, people are probably suffering more than they were then. Any time you go into a negotiation, you want to have a credible strike threat. Do you feel like you’re in a strong position going into this negotiation?

I think we’re always in a strong position. It’s a serious mistake to play a game of chicken. In these negotiations, we are there to make a deal, not to have a strike. But that, again, largely depends on the employers responding to us in a meaningful way and responding to the 13 local unions we represent and creating more security. It’s a mistake to underestimate people’s resolve. The times are different now. People are strong and they have that resolve and they see changes that can be made. … I caution against any kind of assumption that we’re weakened and not in the position to use their power to get what we need.

Let’s talk about pay. In 2021, you got a 3% increase for three years — and then immediately inflation goes up 8%. SAG-AFTRA got a 7% increase for year one, followed by 4% in year two and 3.5% in year three. Is that a baseline in terms of what you’re looking for? Or does it have to be more than that for your members to catch up?

We definitely have to make up that ground. And as you know, we were in the midst of bargaining when inflation began to rise. So it was very difficult to go back and correct that at the end of the last negotiation. But yes, we’ll certainly be looking to make that up and we’ll be looking closely what the guilds got and the value of their deal. We’ll be looking for a proportionate deal at least for ourselves.

In 2021, the major issue was turnaround times and meal penalties. It was a case of people saying, ‘We’re being worked so hard, coming back from COVID, that people are just going from job to job, getting burned out and doing 14-hour days. Is that still a front burner issue for you?

We’re analyzing the data. We have seen some improvements because of what we negotiated. I think we still have some work to do there. It looks like some of what we did was in fact effective. The notion that people are getting rest is really what we wanted. We’re not after the penalties and the dollars – we’re about giving rest to people, a chance to get off their feet and have a meal or spend a little time with their families before they have to come back to work.

Another major thing from last time was streaming residuals for pension and health. And I can’t remember if it’s that you get zero streaming residuals, or it’s just not enough?

In 2021, we funded the plans in large part with additional contributions and on an hourly basis [in which employers make contributions based on the number of hours worked by members]. There’s a few ways that our funds get in money. One is the hourly, one is the residuals and of course there’s investment return. Yes, we will be looking for a way to attach streaming product for residuals and create a more stable and consistent funding mechanism for the plans…. Let me just add that this negotiation, a lot of it’s going to be about security, post COVID, and what people were going through. People have reflected on their lives and people want and need some change. And so there’s a catalyst out there to really do this now.

During the strikes there was a long period of time last year when people were not working and many of them are still not working. What was the impact on your pension and health fund?

Because of the management of health plans and the pension plan, we were able to bridge benefits for people throughout the pandemic and the strikes. And it’s costly. We are still on target to provide those benefits and promised pensions to people. So, again, it’s about more reliable funding and more money to make sure that security lasts into the future, and to make sure that we have a promise from the employers that in this precarious business, basic security will be provided to [IATSE members] and their families.

A notable thing this year is that you’re negotiating alongside the Hollywood Basic Crafts union, specifically the pension and health piece of the contract. Can you give me a sense of the strategy there? Does that mean you’re on the same page and asking for the same things?

The Teamsters and the Basic Crafts participate in the same benefit plans and same qualifications and the same grand design as we do. So we think it makes all the sense in the world to be at the table together and, frankly, it’s our hope that it will bring more power to us in negotiations. Their interests are identical to ours. They are our sister union and it’s the right thing to do. Again, we think this will position us better.

Are there any other major issues or themes that you’ll be confronting with AMPTP?

Certainly, AI is a big deal. The studios must take the local negotiations seriously and be responsive with meaningful improvements. … And there’s one other issue, which has to do with the subcontracting out of our work, which again is a security issue. Some of the jobs that we’ve traditionally done and some new technology has [allowed] employers to contract out work that is traditionally under our jurisdiction. We have to make sure that we’re protecting jobs and they’re not getting farmed out.

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